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What is Clean Skincare? Everything You Need to Know

Written by: Madeleine Hartmann

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Time to read 12 min

Clean beauty is challenging to define because the term is used interchangeably with terms like natural, sustainable, or preservative-free. In reality, “clean beauty” is a marketing term. Regulatory agencies like the FDA have not put forth any restrictions on the use of “clean” or “natural” labels for skincare packaging, so it can mean whatever the skincare brand wants it to. 


The trend of skincare products changing their packaging to appear more “clean” without any change in formulation or production methods is called greenwashing. The clean beauty movement started in 2017, spurred by influencers and celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow condemning certain ingredients and additives in skincare, using scare tactics by asking questions like, “Do you want anti-freeze (propylene glycol) in your moisturizer?” This was a promotional tactic for her skincare line, Goop. This spurred a demand for clean beauty companies to create natural and organic beauty products that prioritize natural ingredients in their products. 


In working to define what “clean beauty” actually means, let’s separate that word into more specific terms. We will evaluate additives based on their environmental impact, skin allergy potential, presence of comedogenic substances, potentially harmful effects on the body, and if they are a natural ingredient vs. a synthetic ingredient. 

Why Should You Care About Green Beauty?

When it comes to “clean” ingredients in skincare, the aim is to decrease the presence of potentially harmful substances that can cause skin reactions, hormone alterations, accumulation of toxins in the body, or adverse impacts on the environment.

Environmental and Ethical Considerations

Cosmetic products are one of the leading causes of pollution in the environment. This pollution can come from packaging, creating physical waste, or chemical accumulation in water supplies, crops, and animal tissues. 


Packaging practices are important as plastic packaging contributes to the widespread prevalence of microplastics in the water supply. Plastic packaging, when discarded, breaks down into tiny pieces of plastic that have been found in water supplies all over the world, even inside humans. One study evaluated microplastic presence in pregnant women and found microplastics in the placentas of 6 women. Microplastics can break down into toxic substances like bisphenol A (BPA) inside the body, causing problems like inflammation, diabetes exacerbation, increased blood pressure, or behavioral changes in children. 

clean beauty

What Ingredients Should You Avoid? Everything You Need to Know

Regarding potentially harmful ingredients, the EU bans 1300 harmful ingredients, compared to the FDA, which prohibits 11. California passed a bill in 2020 called the Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act that prohibits additional elements that the EU bans and the FDA doesn’t. 


There are a lot of conflicting statements about specific ingredients that need to be scientifically supported. But just being aware of many of these ingredients is a step in the right direction. Let’s go through the science behind these ingredients, evaluating for environmental impact, skin irritation potential, harmful effects on the body, presence of comedogenic additives, and the natural vs. chemical nature (highly processed or synthesized in a lab).


Scores reflect relative safety and prevalence of skin reactions, 0 being reactive/unsafe, 10 being safe and free of significant side effects. 

Parabens

Parabens are the most popular synthetic preservative in the beauty industry, appearing in everything from face wash to mascara. Parabens also act as an antimicrobial and antifungal agent. Some parabens are banned in the EU, but not in the US. The banned parabens are Isopropylparaben, Isobutylparaben, phenylparaben, benzylparaben, and pentylparaben. Isobutyl and isopropyl parabens are banned under California’s Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act as well. 


Parabens are not dangerous at low levels. However, if parabens are applied using leave-on products like moisturizer or in large quantities from multiple cosmetic products, parabens are subsequently found in human tissue. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but data from living humans is limited, and most research comes from testing on mice. There is a slight correlation between estrogen-mimicking effects of parabens and breast cancer, but no studies have definitively proved this. Methylparaben and ethylparaben are the safest paraben additives. 


Regarding sustainability, parabens and their byproducts are often found in low concentrations in water supplies and marine animal tissues, though no negative effect was observed. Most wastewater facilities can effectively remove most parabens before the waste is incorporated into the environment as fertilizer. 


Sustainability: 6/10

Irritant Score: 9/10

Comedogenic: 10/10

Safety Score: 7/10

Natural vs. Chemical: Chemical


Clean Score: 7/10

clean beauty

Phthalates 

Phthalates are not commonly found in skincare products, usually perfume, hairspray, deodorant, body wash, or nail polish. It is most often inhaled as a route of entry but can also marginally penetrate the skin. Safety assessments of phthalates focus on concerns found from testing on rats whose skin is significantly more permeable to phthalates than humans. Testing on monkeys, genetically similar to humans, revealed no adverse effects. 


Diethyl Phthalate and Dimethyl Phthalate are safe and most often used in cosmetics. Dibutyl Phthalate, on the other hand, is highly toxic. It is banned by California and the EU for causing developmental and reproductive toxicity.  


Phthalates do not persist in the environment and are easily biodegraded by sunlight or water. 


Sustainability: 10/10

Irritant Score: 9/10

Comedogenic: 10/10

Safety Score: 9/10

Natural vs. Chemical: Chemical


Clean Score: 9/10

Sulfates 

Sulfates are often used as detergents to clean the hair and skin. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate is found in shampoos, face washes, laundry detergent, and toothpaste. Sulfates have a medium risk of irritation of the eyes, skin, and mouth. The irritant effect of Sulfates is due to their tendency to over-wash, stripping the skin or hair of oils needed to maintain barrier function. Its use in products that wash off, like soap, is considered safe. 


Formulations for continued use should not exceed 1% in concentration as they may cause irritation. When inhaled, sulfates are much more dangerous. Exposure to sulfates in the air only happens in manufacturing settings where the chemical is developed, causing lung problems when inhaled. 


Sulfates are not environmentally friendly, contributing to acidification of the water supply, damaging ecosystems, forests, plants, and affecting the development of animals. 


Sustainability: 3/10

Irritant Score: 5/10

Comedogenic: 10/10

Safety Score: 8/10

Natural vs. Chemical: Chemical


Clean Score: 6/10

clean beauty

Fragrance and Botanical Extracts

Fragrances are a broad grouping of chemicals and botanical extracts with varying effects. Mostly, it’s best to avoid them, especially if you have sensitive skin. There is a high correlation of dermatitis and products containing natural or artificial fragrances. Carriers of fragrances are alcohol (drying) or oils (comedogenic) so they don’t mesh well with any skin type. They are thought to disrupt endocrine function but research has not highlighted how that effect is enacted. The risk of cancer is low but present. 


Fragrances are toxic when inhaled and inflammatory when ingested. 


Fragrances that are chemical in nature are toxic and accumulative in the environment, and botanical extracts can persist as well, depending on how they were refined or carried. 


Sustainability: 7/10

Irritant Score: 2/10

Comedogenic: 5/10

Safety Score: 2/10

Natural vs. Chemical: Natural or Chemical


Clean Score: 3/10

Talc 

Talc is used in many skincare products to absorb moisture and create a smooth and soft appearance. It is found in many makeup products like foundation, eye shadow, setting spray, deodorant, primer, and more. Talc is often contaminated with asbestos due to imperfect manufacturing processes, which can cause respiratory toxicity and cancer. Even when asbestos fibers are not present, there is still a risk of cancer, respiratory problems, and irritation. Most of the harmful effects of talcum powder occur when ingested or inhaled (especially in babies). 


Talc is not suspected to accumulate in the environment, but it is not known at this time if it is toxic to other animals when diluted through waste processes. 


Sustainability: 4/10

Irritant Score: 2/10

Comedogenic: 10/10

Safety Score: 1/10

Natural vs. Chemical: Natural


Clean Score: 3/10

clean beauty

Silica 

Silica is used to thicken cosmetics or to absorb moisture. Silica is the main component in sand.  It presents little danger when applied topically but can be a harmful irritant to the lungs when inhaled. 


Silica does not accumulate in the environment or present toxicity risks to animals. This is not the same as silica gel packets, which can accumulate in the environment. 


Sustainability: 10/10

Irritant Score: 8/10

Comedogenic: 10/10

Safety Score: 8/10

Natural vs. Chemical: Natural 


Clean Score: 9/10

Silicone 

Silicones are found in a wide range of products and are commonly found in moisturizers and hair care products, specifically conditioners. You will typically see it as dimethicone or methicone on ingredient panels. Silicone products work well to moisturize and protect the skin barrier while being non-comedogenic and hypoallergenic. In hair care, silicones encase and protect the hair shaft from physical and chemical damage. 


Silicones are suspected to bioaccumulate, given that they are not water-soluble. It is unclear if they are toxic to animals.


Sustainability: 7/10

Irritant Score: 10/10

Comedogenic: 10/10

Safety Score: 9/10

Natural vs. Chemical: Chemical


Clean Score: 8/10

clean beauty

Formaldehyde & Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives

Formaldehyde and formalin are used to stabilize active ingredients in lotions, soaps, and shampoos. They are considered to be a toxic carcinogen, high-risk irritant, and known cause of inflammation.


There is an additional class of formaldehyde-releasing chemicals that vary in safety scores. Many are outlawed in the EU; formaldehyde releasers may be called Formaldehyde Quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, Imidazolidinyl urea, Diazolidinyl urea, Polyoxymethylene urea, Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol), or Glyoxal. 


Formaldehyde breaks down quickly into formic acid and carbon dioxide, so it does not accumulate in the environment. If an animal is directly exposed to formaldehyde, it can make them sick, affect their reproductive system, or reduce their life span. 


Sustainability: 6/10

Irritant Score: 0/10

Comedogenic: 10/10

Safety Score: 0/10

Natural vs. Chemical: Chemical 


Clean Score: 2/10

Hydroquinone 

Hydroquinone is a subject of a lot of debate in terms of its safety and its target audience. Hydroquinone is mainly marketed to POC as a skin lightener. On non-POC, it can be used to fade melasma, scars, or freckles. 


There is a widespread misconception that topical Hydroquinone causes cancer, but it is not supported by research. It may cause UV hypersensitivity but not cause cancer, so make sure you’re consistent with using sunscreen if you use this product. One possible adverse symptom is giving a bluish-gray color (Ochromosis) to the skin of POC when used liberally over a long period.


When breathed in or if it gets in your eyes, like in the case of cigarette smoke, it can cause inflammation and lung problems. When ingested, it is toxic. 


Hydroquinone does not accumulate in the environment but does have cytotoxic effects on marine organisms when directly exposed.


Sustainability: 5/10

Irritant Score: 7/10

Comedogenic: 10/10

Safety Score: 6/10

Natural vs. Chemical: Chemical 


Clean Score: 6/10

clean beauty

Petrolatum

Petrolatum is an occlusive moisturizing product that forms a barrier against water. It can be helpful for those with damaged or dry skin and helps to heal wounds.  


At the same time, petrolatum accumulates in the environment and presents toxic effects to marine and land animals, especially when ingested. 


Sustainability: 4/10

Irritant Score: 9/10

Comedogenic: 6/10

Safety Score: 7/10

Natural vs. Chemical: Chemical


Clean Score: 6/10

Benefits of Clean Skincare 

Sustainable skincare is an ethically responsible purchase. By choosing to support only companies that use recycled, minimal, or compostable packaging, and responsibly dispose of their waste rather than trendy or conventional beauty companies, you are investing in the planet's future by using your purchase essentially as a vote, to support the success of responsible companies. 


Irritating skincare ingredients are a big problem if you have sensitive skin. Many additives in cosmetic products can cause contact dermatitis, moisture barrier disruption, dryness, and more. Knowing what additives are potentially harmful to your skin gives you the knowledge to choose products that are best for your skin’s health. 


Comedogenic products are another thing to be aware of if you have acne-prone skin. They can clog your pores and make it difficult for your skin to purge the dirt and oil.


Safety of skin care products is paramount if you want to care for your body long-term. Regulatory agencies are years behind the scientific research available concerning potentially carcinogenic or inflammation-causing products. Doing your own research about the safety of skincare ingredients can save your health in the long run. 


Natural skincare products are mostly a preference. Consumers like to see a product marketed as occurring naturally rather than being synthesized in a laboratory because it gives a perceived sense of safety. If you have sensitive skin, you may notice that more natural products don’t cause as many reactions or vice versa; this is very individualized. 


Clean skincare tries to balance all five characteristics, but just because something says “clean” doesn’t mean it’s sustainable, non-irritating, non-comedogenic, safe, and natural. “Clean skincare” is a marketing term. Do your research to see if a product is truly clean if that is important to you. 

clean beauty

How Can I Identify Clean Beauty Products? Clean Beauty 101

Check Packaging 

Look for minimal packaging, such as a small tube with no box. This minimizes plastic waste that can enter the water supply as microplastics. 


Look for recycled or compostable packaging by reading labels or visiting the brand’s website to minimize the creation of new plastic waste. 

Take a Look at the Ingredients

When you check the ingredient list, look for ingredients you may be sensitive to or have been identified as carcinogens, irritants, or otherwise dangerous to your health. There are ways to vet individual products, such as the EWG website, where you’ll find tons of information on the safety of individual ingredients or products. 

Look for These Symbols to Identify Clean Beauty Products

Symbols to Identify Clean Beauty Products

Research Beauty Brands 

Most brands will have an about page where you can learn about their production practices, ingredient sourcing, and carbon footprint. If it’s not available directly on the website, it can be easily found with some research. 

Read Skin Care Product Reviews

Reading reviews can help you identify products that may cause skin reactions. Knowing if you have normal, sensitive, dry, normal, or oily skin can help you identify reviewers with similar skin concerns and see how their skin reacted to the product. Reading beauty blogs and influencer blurbs may also be helpful, but remember that they may be sponsored, showing a skewed view of product efficacy and safety. 

Building Your Clean & Green Beauty Routine

Knowing the action of active ingredients can be a big advantage when you have skin concerns or sensitivities. To see the effects of common active ingredients, check out our active ingredient and vitamin articles. If you have sensitive skin, avoid the additives with poor irritant scores. If sustainability and environmental impact are important to you, shoot for high sustainability scores or sustainability/cruelty-free certifications. 

Conclusion

Clean skincare means many different things, but being aware of the ingredients that may have detrimental effects is the first step toward understanding what clean beauty really means. If you’d like to research other ingredients as you build your clean and natural skincare routine, check out the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) skin deep database and search individual ingredients to see their safety and reactivity. EWG is a great resource that also provides certifications for products, which is a symbol you’ll see in the above labeling graphic. Transparency in the beauty industry is not common now, but if we continue to prioritize clean and safe ingredients, maybe the beauty aisle might start looking a little different. 

What is clean skincare? Define clean.

Clean skincare doesn’t really have one definition, but the perception is sustainable, non-irritating, noncomedogenic, safe for the body, and natural. 

Why is clean and green beauty so important?

Prioritizing skincare products that are environmentally friendly and safe for your skin is important both ethically, for the health of the environment, and for the health of your skin (especially if you have sensitive skin). 

Is clean skincare worth it?

Clean skincare may be worth it for some but not for others. It really depends on your skin type and how much you importance you place on the health of the environment. Cleaner ingredients can sometimes present a cost barrier.

What are the best clean beauty products?

Check out Supermood's products, created ethically and sustainably and free of toxic chemicals. 

Written by:


 

Madeleine Hartmann

Madeleine is a Medical Copywriter who was born in Upstate New York. She graduated from Temple University with a Bachelor of Science in Human Biology in 2019. She is a digital nomad who travels full-time.

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Reviewed by:


 

Felipe Partarrieu-MejĂ­as, MD IFAAD

Felipe is a hardworking and self-motivated dermatologist with a great passion for skin diseases and therapeutics. He has experience in specialised clinical care, researching scientific literature, and writing scientific articles.

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